A Look Back at a Roller Coaster of a Year in L.A. Politics

In 2020, the halls of power were dominated by big fights, big surprises, and the mother of all federal investigations

The biggest national political story of 2020 was Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump. The saga of news vs. fake news, mail-in balloting, lengthy counts, recounts, and the president’s myriad thwarted legal maneuvers will end up in the history books.

Los Angeles’ political year was not that tumultuous, but it was close. Across the region a series of twists, turns, movements, and personalities made headlines.

L.A.’s political year can be broken down into a trio of categories. Here is a rundown of what happened in 2020.

County Wins and Kerfuffles

Fab Five: When the year began, the Board of Supervisors was unique in that four of its five members were women. The panel became truly historic last month, when state Senator Holly Mitchell crushed L.A. Councilman Herb Wesson in a bid for the Second District seat vacated by a termed-out Mark Ridley-Thomas. Mitchell, known for helping craft California’s $200 billion budget and advocating for criminal justice reform, collected 60 percent of the vote and now represents approximately 2 million residents. During Mitchell’s inauguration video fellow Supe Janice Hahn stated, “You make a welcome addition to the newly formed Fab Five.”

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Holly Mitchell toppled Herb Wesson to become L.A. County’s next supervisor

Hollyjmitchell.com | Wessonforsupervisor2020.com

War Games: The relationship between Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the County Board of Supervisors has been rocky almost from the moment he won election two years ago. Somehow, it deteriorated even further throughout 2020. Villanueva, who maintains that the Supes never wanted him to win, butted heads with the panel on subjects including (but not limited to) deputy cliques, oversight, and the LASD budget. It grew so bad that, in November, the supervisors voted 3-2 to explore options to remove the sheriff—who was elected by voters—from office.

A CEO Leaves: Many people are unaware that Los Angeles County has a CEO. Yet Sachi Hamai ably filled the post for five years, overseeing a $35 billion budget and managing both the county’s day-to-day operations and multiple powerful personalities. Hamai had planned to retire in the spring, but delayed her departure to help steady the ship as COVID-19 surged. Then somehow Sheriff Villanueva’s fight with the board spilled over into a tiff with Hamai, and the sheriff directed some pointed attacks at her. The proceedings were serpentine, strange, and bitter, and culminated in Hamai stepping down in August, and the county giving her $1.5 million, and providing a security contingent, as part of a settlement from her tangle with the sheriff.

Protests, Policing, and Fallout

Rise of Black Lives Matter: For years BLM-Los Angeles was treated as a fringe group by the mainstream political sector. That changed after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, as organization leaders Melina Abdullah (cofounder of the L.A. chapter of BLM) and Patrisse Cullors (cofounder of the national movement) brought vociferous, organized protests into the heart of numerous Los Angeles neighborhoods. With huge, sign-carrying crowds filling the streets, government leaders were forced to confront racial justice in ways Los Angeles never had, and BLM-L.A. kept the pressure up, with honed demands focused on reforming policing. It was one of the most impressive political power plays in years, and BLM-L.A.’s voice won’t be ignored any longer.

lapd protest los angeles
Police protests defined the summer of 2020

LAPD on the Hot Seat: The nationwide protests over police brutality alone would have made this a challenging year for the Los Angeles Police Department, but that, and city leaders’ consequent move to cut $150 million from the department’s budget, was only the start. More fire was related to raises—the city and the Police Protective League, the union that reps rank-and-file officers, had negotiated a series of pay hikes well before the coronavirus, but as COVID-19 began ravaging the economy, the PPL refused entreaties to delay the boosts. Now the department could see hundreds of positions eliminated, at the same time that murders are spiking and the city is struggling to balance its budget. That’s not the only rough patch—the union has lashed out at Chief Michel Moore, with many officers charging that he doesn’t have their backs.

Lacey Gets Gascóned: It’s easy to forget how close District Attorney Jackie Lacey was to winning a third term—in the March primary she earned 48.65 percent in a three-person field, just shy of the majority needed to win outright (her husband pulling a gun on protesters outside the couple’s home shortly before that election didn’t help). Then former San Francisco D.A. and ex-LAPD higher-up George Gascón caught fire with his progressive agenda, and in the wake of the Floyd killing, BLM and other activists took aim at Lacey’s record, asserting she gave too much leeway to law enforcement. The momentum shifted, as figures including Mayor Eric Garcetti and Congressman Adam Schiff pulled their backing of Lacey. Although law enforcement unions dumped millions into her campaign, Gascón was a runaway train, and he nabbed 53.5 percent of the vote in the November 3 general election, instantly changing the approach to criminal justice in L.A. County.

A City Shake-Up

Garcetti’s Roller-Coaster Year: When the coronavirus slammed into Los Angeles in March, Eric Garcetti was front and center; his nightly news conferences helped calm a frazzled public, and his nonprofit Mayor’s Fund raised more than $56 million to help economically impacted Angelenos. Yet like politicians across the country, Garcetti has been hammered by COVID-19’s insidious health and economic impacts, and protesters have regularly gathered outside his home, blasting him for myriad matters, including the city’s ever-worsening homelessness crisis. Things grew more complicated as the year went on, with an investigation into former aide Rick Jacobs, and on December 17, Garcetti announced that his 9-year-old daughter had contracted the coronavirus (he said symptoms are mild and she is recovering). That day he also ended intense speculation by saying he would not take a job in the Biden administration. Still, the mayor’s future remains a hotly debated subject.

Turnout Explodes: In 2015, city residents voted to shift L.A.’s election schedule from odd-numbered to even years. The effort to align with county and state schedules paid off in March and then again in November, as formerly anemic turnout rates skyrocketed. Consider Council District 10: In 2015, Herb Wesson won the seat with 8,889 votes. This November, Mark Ridley-Thomas claimed the same post with more than 56,000 votes. Similar changes were seen in almost every other district.

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Newcomer Nithya Raman (right) defeated incumbent councilman David Ryu

Portraits by Shayan Asgharnia

Nithya Raman Shakes Up the System: Until this year, Los Angeles City Council incumbent had not lost a race since 2003. That track record didn’t faze Nithya Raman, a Silver Lake resident who last year launched a bid to unseat District 4 officeholder David Ryu. Raman, an urban planner and first-time candidate, ran a historic campaign, energizing volunteers with her progressive, Feel-the-Bern agenda, and presenting a detailed and humanistic platform focused on addressing homelessness and other issues. She surprised most observers by forcing Ryu into a runoff in March, then throttled him in November, finishing with more than 70,000 votes. Suddenly, no sitting councilmember should feel safe come election time.

The Fall of Jose Huizar: Some politicians tumble at the ballot box. Longtime District 14 Councilman Jose Huizar was felled by an expansive federal investigation into pay-to-play politics in City Hall. The FBI raided Huizar’s home and office in 2018, and this March the Department of Justice began filing charges, first against another former councilman, Mitch Englander, and then against a variety of Huizar affiliates who were part of an alleged “CD-14 Enterprise” that allegedly engaged in bribery, mail fraud, and other crimes. Huizar was arrested in June, and now faces dozens of criminal counts, including a racketeering charge. Court documents detail a litany of unsavory behavior, from squeezing developers for campaign contributions to visiting an escort. So far nine people have been charged, and Huizar has pleaded not guilty. Ultimately the other council members forced him from office, and in October, Kevin de León was sworn in to replace him. Huizar is scheduled to stand trial next June.

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